Clark Terry

September 20, 2013

I met Clark Terry just once; this was after a concert at Sheffield’s Leadmill Theatre in the mid-1980s during a UK tour by a truly all-star band; the other members of the sextet were Buddy Tate, Sir Roland Hanna, Al Grey, Len Skeat and Ronnie Verrell. I was backstage with a colleague, Mike Pinfold, who was hoping to interview some of the musicians for a radio show. I just hung in the background, speaking when spoken to. Clark was friendly and polite although our conversation didn’t get far from “Hello, how are you?” and “Fine, thank you.”

To digress : Mike was not especiallyserenade to a bus seat successful with his interview plans. Maybe one day he will tell the full story of the reasons for this but, briefly, Ronnie Verrell was depping that night and all that the American visitors wanted to talk about was how astonishingly inspiring his drumming had been.


Digressing again: I connected with Clark only one other time. This was when I planned to put him into one of my crime novels and because I intended giving him lines to speak, I thought it appropriate to write and seek his approval. Clark wrote back, saying it was fine with him; although the letter was brief, beside his signature was a delightful little drawing. It would be nice to publish this here, but I no longer have the letter; I gave it to a friend who was both a collector of autographs and a jazz fan.

cover top & bottom brassAltogether, it would seem that all of this is not much to remember him by; but the reality is that Clark Terry was for decades an important part of my jazz life, even if it was only through records.

“Only through records” sound a bit dismissive; a reality check displays the fact that this outstanding musician appeared on a staggering number of record dates, often as leader. The total number of jazz dates is measured in the high hundreds, making him one of the most prolific of jazz recording artists. Importantly, in Clark’s case, quantity never affected the quality of his work. He was superb in all that he did. Whether as sideman or leader, it seldom took more than a few well-chosen notes to subtly inform the listener of his presence. When he was the leader, or was called upon to solo, he always performed with skill, inventiveness, passion and genius. Clark Terry was a master.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on 14 December 1920, for a few years Clark Terry played trumpet in local bands, and was able to develop what became a remarkable technique while serving in the US Navy. Interestingly, the fluid sound that became a hallmark of Clark’s playing might well have come about because he used a clarinet book when practicing. At the end of World War 2, Clark was briefly with Charlie Barnet, then spent three years with Count Basie’s band, before joining Duke Ellington in 1951 where he stayed for eight years. As the 1950s ended, he became a studio musician in New York City, and was thus one of the first black musicians to be regularly employed in this way. cover happy horns + what's happeningA side effect of this was that for more than a decade he appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show as a member of the Doc Severinsen band. Although clearly important, Clark’s extensive studio work didn’t keep him off the jazz scene. Through this same period, he played in jazz groups, working with Bob Brookmeyer, J.J. Johnson among many.

He also formed the ‘Big B-A-D Band’, in which he was joined by many leading New York session musicians.

cover Big B A D BandEarly in the 1970s, Clark Terry joined Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic. Around this time, he also began playing flügelhorn, which eventually became his principal instrument. Anyone who saw him live or on television will recall his remarkable duets with himself. Playing flügelhorn and trumpet simultaneously, he managed to display his skill and showmanship while avoiding merely showing off.

Although rooted in the swing era, Clark was comfortable in most areas of jazz, notably the post-bop mainstream; whatever the setting he played with astonishing technical accomplishment that he never allowed to overshadow the depths of emotion that imbued his exemplary playing with heart and soul.

Anyone wishing to hear Clark Terry at his best can pick almost at random from the hundreds of records he made; almost everything is better than merely good, often the random picker will find something of genius. If something other than chance is preferred, then a prospective listener might confidently choose Serenade To A Bus Seat (Riverside) or Top And Bottom Brass (Original Jazz Classics) or The Happy Horns Of Clark Terry (Impulse) or It’s What’s Happening (Impulse) or Clark Terry’s Big-B-A-D-Band Live At The Wichita Jazz Festival 1974 (Vanguard) clark after darkor Clark After Dark (Verve) or Live At The Village Gate (Chesky) or Yes, The Blues (Original Jazz Classics) or One On One (Chesky).

cover yes the bluesAs this started with a personal note, I will end the same way. The Clark Terry album that I have played most often since its release in 2004 is Porgy & Bess (Americana Music). Back in the 1940s, for a while Clark became something of a mentor to Miles Davis, then a young and up-coming musician. As everyone knows, in 1958 Davis joined forces with Gil Evans to create a landmark recording of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess. Evans’s arrangements and Davis’s playing have withstood the years and numerous changes in jazz styles. The durability of this music became vividly apparent when Jeff Lindberg, of the Chicago Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra, decided to revive the work. Together with Charles Harrison III, Lindberg transcribed the original arrangements and then had the remarkable prescience to choose Clark Terry as featured soloist. Although a trumpet master vastly different from Davis, Clark clearly possessed in abundance qualities of wit and ingenuity. Not only that, but Clark’s playing was gorgeously lyrical, a quality that suited perfectly the operatic origins of Gershwin’s music. As for his skill, that was as abundantly clear as it ever had been in the past, even though at the time of this recording (between November 2003 and February 2004) he celebrated his 83rd birthday.

cover porgy & bessUnerringly, on this album, Clark finds the richly emotional depths of the work and while as different as can be from that of Davis the result is quite outstanding. The music is timeless, the arrangements are rightly legendary, and this version does not pale beside the original. While that original will forever remain a masterpiece, it might well be that in time this performance will be recognized as one of the great achievements of Clark Terry’s career. Both Terry and Davis cut to the emotional core of the music; different routes perhaps, certainly different sounds. Terry plays with a rich, burnished sound that contrasts vividly with Davis’s biting, acerbic tone, but both are true to the musical conception and each stands on its own merits. This is a wholly admirable recording and one that casts an alternative and equally valid light on the original.

Sad to say, this album was available for only a very short time. Indeed, it was gone almost before anyone had a chance to buy it. Hopefully, the tapes are still around and someone will reissue this wonderful music.

In addition to his huge body of recorded work, Clark also composed about two hundred jazz songs. cover TerryTunesHis books include Terry Tunes: The Compositions of Clark Terry, Let’s Talk Trumpet: From Legit to Jazz, Interpretation of the Jazz Language and Clark Terry’s System of Circular Breathing for Woodwind and Brass Instruments (with Phil Rizzo) and, most recently, Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry (with Gwen Terry) was published.Clark Terry autobiography

From 2010 onwards, Clark’s health deteriorated and in December 2011 his right leg was amputated; in May 2012, his left leg was also lost. Despite all of this, his spirits remained high and he benefited greatly from the love and care of his wife, Gwen, his friends and fans, who continued to communicate with him from all around the world. As 2012 gave way to 2013, news came that, remarkably, Clark was once again teaching, thus passing on to today’s generation of musicians the inestimable skills he had learned and used with such skill for so many decades.





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